The tunic comes from the treasure of the Sancta Sanctorum, the private chapel of the Popes located in the ancient Patriarchium of the Lateran, official residence of the pontiffs from the first half of the fourth century until the transfer of the papacy to Avignon (1309-1377). On returning to Rome, the edifice had become unusable, and the Popes moves their residence to the Vatican, initiating the construction of the Apostolic Palace, and progressively increasing the complex in the following centuries.
Originally dedicated to St. Lawrence, in the ninth century the chapel was renamed the Sancta Sanctorum (“The Holy of Holies”), indicating the presence of numerous venerable relics of saints, safeguarded in an ark of cypress wood commissioned by Pope Leo III (795-816). It was protected by two thirteenth-century bronze doors and enclosed under the papal altar in a massive iron cage.
The ark had not been opened since 1521; Father Hartmann Grisar was able to view its contents in 1905, revealing a priceless treasure of reliquaries of gold, silver, ivory, and precious wood: cases, crosses, ciborium, textiles, embroidery, parchments, miniatures, and enamels.
The reliquaries, as well as the textiles, were transferred to the Christian Museum of the Vatican Library in 1906, then to the Vatican Museums in accordance with the Rescriptum of Pope John Paul II in 1999.
Among the various textile fabrics from the treasure of the Sancta Sanctorum are two robes, a chasuble and a tunic, inscribed in medieval inventories as belonging to St. John the Evangelist and St. Peter.
The ancient tunic could be presumed to be that of St. Peter, but the identification cannot be substantiated on historical basis. The article is made of linen mixed with wool; it is almost rectangular in shape, with white decorative lines present on the sides, sleeves and neck. Two strings are sewn on the right side of the tunic and on the wrist. Triangular sleeves are sewn and open under the arm. The simple “T” shape and the type of fabric refer to the models in use in the eastern Mediterranean area from the first to the fourth centuries and are depicted in ancient catacombs paintings.
String cords were added at the ends of the sleeves; these were for the exhibition of the relic. In Rome, there were relics of fabrics that had become the object of veneration since the early Middle Ages, as they were considered parts of clothing worn by Christ, the Virgin or the saints. Others, after touching venerated sepulchers, acquired sacred value as “contact” relics. The presence of numerous cuts on the tunic is attributable to the practice, widespread in ancient times according to testimonial sources, of cutting off portions of the cloth to be distributed as relics.